Friday, July 23, 2010

In Praise of Tough Criticism

Vigilantes run amok, amateur sociologists, phantoms rising out of our national impulse for self-assertiveness and our imaginings of a national literature, the names assigned to this country’s critics in private and public comments that followed my June 26 post pretty much ran the gamut. Still, the fracturing debate among critics is not what to call ourselves, but how to approach the next book of poems we read and assess: Do we gently massage the poet’s ears and proffer deft cutwork from the safety of the poet’s corner or issue thunderous body blows at the centre of the ring? Some may not like Jeffrey R. Di Leo’s answer, but there’s no doubt he’s answered the bell. Here’s his article entitled “In Praise of Tough Criticism":
Jeffrey R. Di Leo is Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences, and Professor of English and Philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. He is editor and publisher of the American Book Review, founder of the journal Symploke,which was awarded the Phoenix Award for Significant Editorial Achievement (2000) by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ), and editor ofthe book series Class in American published by the University of Nebraska Press. He is also president of the Southern Comparative Literature Association and Executive Director of the Society for Critical Exchange.

Di Leo's publications include Morality Matters: Race, Class, and Gender in Applied Ethics (2002), Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture (2003), If Classrooms Matter: Progressive Visions of Educational Environments (2004; with Walter Jacobs), On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy (2004), From Socrates to Cinema: An Introduction to Philosophy (2005), and Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (2007; with R. M.Berry). Forthcoming this fall from him are Federman's Fictions: Innovation,Theory, and the Holocaust (SUNY), and Academe Degree Zero: Reconsidering the Politics of Higher Education (Paradigm).


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Great article, David!

Here's a lesson in art criticism for Canadians. I'd say in Canada only about 5 percent of what is considered good writing is actually good:

"We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy."

Harold Rhenisch said...

A fine article... about criticism as an academic pursuit. Translating it into a manifesto for a practice of criticism of aesthetic work brings a whole other set of apples-and-oranges issues, which, unfortunately, the article does not get into. For example, if a 'critic' 'criticizes' a 'critical' work, then these arguments work, as they are part of the same dialogue as the original artical, but if a 'critic' 'criticizes' an 'aesthetic' work, then someone needs to 'criticize' the 'critic' before the effort is valid. Otherwise this so-called 'tough criticism' runs a considerable risk of being merely 'tough opinion'. It remains, in other words, 'aesthetic' or 'judgemental' rather than 'critical'. Thicker critical skin, certainly, but if a series of comments are not from the same tradition as the work being criticized, then the gap between them needs to be negotiated, most likely with more knowledge and care than most 'critics', 'tough' or otherwise, are individually capable of. It's the dialogue that matters, so let's think of doing this together. Besides, 'critical' culture is an 'aesthetic' of its own. I'm all for poetry being returned to being a 'science', for example, and for the boundaries between disciplines being collapsed, but judgement is not the way to do that. Reframing the dialogue might work better. Conrad. 5%? You are most generous. But, here's the thing, in other countries it's the same thing. It's not just Canada. German writing strikes me as being technically superior, on a paragraph by paragraph basis, but I think what sets German writing apart is not the superiority of German writers, but the superiority of the editing culture. That's another way to get at honesty and criticism: have it take place as part of a creative process, early on, before the ink hits the page. Anything else might just be too cumbersome and too late, except for its utility for an attempt to kick start our creative writing pedagogy.

Ken said...

A defendant has a right to know his accuser. And the jury also has a right to know, for the accuser’s credibility is of great importance. This is as it should be, even if the alleged crime is a literary one. The reason some fear giving honest negative criticism, unless hidden behind a cloak of anonymity, is that the academic community is so inbred and cliquish: everyone knows everyone else in the same field. And the academic’s career depends less on honesty than on being very politic--and Ivory Tower politics are exceptionally nasty. The problem is inherent in the professionalization of criticism.

David Kosub said...

As hard as they are to attain, knowledge and a breadth of understanding of various traditions should be the sine qua non of criticism, Harold, whether of the academic or practical kind. And however the dialogue is reframed, as you put it, I don't know how, at the end of the day, we get around making judgements. That's what we're called upon to do as reviewers of books or as academics when peer reviewing academic and scholastic performance. The trick for me is how do we show fundamental respect for the human being behind whatever work we're assessing while providing rigorously honest and helpful insights for the reader (and perhaps even for the writer)

Conrad, it's hard enough determining (in the most complete way) if a book by one writer is "good" writing let alone an entire nation.


Lemon Hound said...

"I'd say in Canada only about 5 percent of what is considered good writing is actually good:"

How about expanding that to the world?

David, you say:
Do we gently massage the poet’s ears and proffer deft cutwork from the safety of the poet’s corner or issue thunderous body blows at the centre of the ring?

As if these two are the only choices? I keep putting myself out on these blogs, not sure why really because the very simple fact is we can't seem to break out of this binary of thinking that there can only be, or indeed that there ever is, negative or positive criticism.

Either is extremely useless.

Critical engagement is something entirely rigorous and demanding. What I see passing for "tough criticism" quite frankly makes me laugh.

David Kosub said...

Naw, it's just a way of framing the debate, not exhausting it. I'm sure there are more nuanced and balanced approaches between the two extremes.

At a minimum I'd settle for "tougher" criticism if the more rigorous, truly tough stuff isn't imminent.


Lemon Hound said...

How about smarter? I would go for that. More generous. Generative. Instructive in sly ways. Inspiring. Opening. A kind of criticism that makes people want to write, or write well, or read, or read more, or better...and so on.

When we have criticism that is so small, that carves out its wee territory and shoots anything that moves, it seems our very discourse shrinks around us...

Largeness of spirit, that would be lovely.

David Kosub said...

I couldn't agree more. A shared humanity underpins, envelops all that we do, as artists or critics. It's there to be nurtured as well as understood, illuminated, challenged.

Stephen Morrissey said...

Here's an excellent article that addresses this issue, from the Huffington Post:

daniela elza said...

Thanks, Lemon Hound. I am with you.

Can we also not argue that critical behaviour that results in a chorus of condemnation can breed conformity as well? And perhaps a worse case of conformity. Perhaps conformity to a very narrow view. One that allows poetry to exist only in certain ways.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Daniela. Still, I think the greater danger flows from the chorus of affirmation Di Leo describes (as evidenced by that singular modern day phenomenon of the national literary icon) than it does from a "chorus of condemnation" as you put it. No one is arguing for that or for conformity to anything but sound critical principles, some of which were contained in Di Leo's essay (e.g. acknowledging the ideas of others, marrying courage with candour to say what we truly believe instead of resorting to evasive strategies such as faint praise - and yes, the principle of even-handedness). In this regard, Di Leo's call for a "reshaped critical culture" is as pertinent to practical criticism as it is to academia, if the results include book reviews and other forms of criticism that are equally "robust, honest, and transparent."

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